Feminist Mappings of the City

What is a feminist “image of the city”?

The city is often experienced negatively by women. Easily measured causes for negativity include criminal violence, physical and sexual assault, and street harassment. Less easy to measure are the effects of these and other negative experiences, which are often registered rather subjectively.

This paper proposes a new mapping of gendered experiences of the city based on Kevin Lynch’s environmental images. My proposal is informed by feminist art projects that measure and represent women’s negative experiences in the city. My goal is to develop a new environmental image that reflects these experiences.

Environmental Images

Urban planner Kevin Lynch’s 1960 book The Image of the City is a landmark study of urbanism. Lynch proposes principles in Image for designing cities that make people feel at home. To do so, he says that cities should be “legible” to their inhabitants (2-6); in particular, every city should have an easily identifiable form made from a few formal elements (paths, edges, districts, nodes, landmarks) that make up its identity, structure, and meaning (46-48; 8-9). The effect is an “environmental image” of the city that is interactively created between viewer and urban environment (6). The purpose of that image is to create a memory of the city. It is from this memory that people orient themselves in the city and navigate its streets, even if they find themselves lost or disoriented by chaos (4-6).

Lynch recognizes that the image-making process involves many individuals who ‘create and bear’ their own images that vary according to age, sex, culture, occupation, temperament, and familiarity (7). Lynch therefore sees the image of the city as primarily an issue of “communication,” a term thoroughly disseminated in the text. He subsequently sees his task as “to pass over individual differences” to find a “public image” of common characteristics by way of “areas of agreement” (7). Lynch’s ideal wipes away difference to create a “visible, coherent, clear” landscape (91). Put in historical context, we see that Lynch’s image of the city emerges in tandem with the “ruthless unity” of TV, which Adorno and Horkheimer criticize as a “system that is uniform and whole in every part” that broadcasts in colors the same tint as fascism (Dialectic of the Enlightenment, 120-124).

The Venice School of Architecture offers a striking counterpoint to Lynch’s unified image. Drawing from 19th century German Sociologists, they argue that the modern city is a place of “anguish” (Architecture of Utopia, 1). For them, architecture is at its best when it expands this anguish rather than resolving it. It for this reason that Manfredo Tafuri argues against Lynch’s ideal of rising above the fray, and he instead suggests that we study how the city “speaks in many dialects” through “the construction of physical spaces” that serve as “the site of ‘battle’” (Sphere and the Labyrinth, 8).

I do not think that Lynch and the Venice School need to be diametrically opposed. Rather, I propose that environmental images can be constituted through subjective differences rather than beyond them. Evidence for this can be found in recent feminist artistic renderings of the city. In many of these feminist works, they map the polysemic battles of urbanism by depicting negative experiences of the city and locating the monumentalization of patriarchal power in the built environment.

Three Maps of Anguish

Three maps of the city drawn in the early-to-mid 2000s capture the anguish felt by feminists, each in a different location.

The first map of anguish was made here in the United States. Decades of AIDS activism, followed by the Bush election and the beginning of the Iraq War had many feminists feeling what they catalogued as “detachment, numbness, vagueness, confusion, bravado, exhaustion, apathy” (Berlant, “Critical Inquiry, Affirmative Culture,” 450). A group of activists, artists, and academics convened in Chicago, determined to confront these negative emotions and unwilling to follow the usual script of suffering these emotions in isolation. They named their group Public Feelings, with the purpose of turning private emotions into a resource for political action (Cvetkovich, “Public Feelings”). Later, the group changed their name to “Feel Tank,” as a playful jab at “Think Tanks” and their rationalist-institutionalist approach to politics.

Feel Tank’s foray into mapping was made public in a 2007 art exhibition entitled “Pathogeographies, Or, Other People’s Baggage.” The show featured dozens of exciting projects inspired by a general model taken from the French Situationists’ psycho-geography. Unlike the Situationist interest in space’s impact on the psyche, Feel Tank was instead concerned with “emotional investments, temperatures, traumas, pleasures, and ephemeral experiences circulating throughout the political and cultural landscape” (“Pathogeographies,” elec). Various artists thus explored Chicago through the concept of the suitcase. In example, the faux-corporate artist duo Psychological Prosthetics dressed up in lab coats to inquire about “how to make custom-designed luggage for your personal baggage,” with follow-up questions such as, “how big should it be? Should it have straps to be easier to carry, or should it be packaged to send to someone else?.” Andi Sutton walked ethnic enclaves of south-side Chicago with unwieldy suitcases brimming full of dirt and squash seeds, hoping to exchange of plants for help. Her walk was instead a distressing exercise in racial alienation, seeming disorientation, and obscene spectacle (Zorach, “Make It Stop”). The Institute for Infinitely Small Things left “Unmarked Packages” in various locations of Chicago to observe how uncertainty was addressed in a time of heightened national security. They were mostly met with passing curiosity or simple indifference (Zorach).

“Pathogeographies” indexed the changing character of political antagonism in the city. Rather than a grand confrontation, they found that urban conflicts are diffuse. Its violence is frequent but seemingly indifferent, petty, and disavowed. Many findings from the show indicate that everyday micro-events, such as street harassment or a mugging, are just as important as the larger punctual events of a presidential visit, music idol’s funeral, or major political demonstration (as in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis).

The second map of anguish was composed in East London. Beginning in 2005, visual artist Laura Oldfield Ford documented the city as it was gearing up for the 2012 Olympics. Ford collected the resulting archive in a series of ‘zines eventually collected as a book entitled Savage Messiah. In these ‘zine, she depicts the city in a monochromatic tone on harsh Xeroxed black and white pages. Her collages are based on dérives, the wanders first outlined by the Situationists, where one is quickly led through the city by passing conversations, interactions with the built environment, and urban micro-events (Debord, “Theory of the Dérive”). The ‘zines are ostensibly about the gentrification of an area of forgotten people, whose lives are maligned in equal measure to the large housing projects they inhabit. The fractured narrative and visual chaos makes Ford’s work ultimately more a study of the Spectacle and everything it conceals.

Ford beautifully elaborates on Situationist Guy Debord’s critique of the Spectacle, which is based primarily on capitalism’s colonization of time (Society of the Spectacle). Her subject is the so-called “urban regeneration” of East London, and she demonstrates that such “renewal” is not about newness. The people she meets are living relics. Flesh and bone dissolve into lines drawing and printed text. Both of which depict people only through her hurried recording of them. The places she visits equally spectral – she moves through one housing block after another, history unknown, future hazy but with an impending sense of doom. Even before major construction for the Olympics is finished, Ford persuades us of its ending with each additional page. The Olympic facilities will be abandoned as quickly as the dilapidated social development projects that they were built atop.

Ford’s depiction, while firmly adopting the punk stance of “no future,” is far from fatalistic. She instead captures the experience of alienation – boredom, aimlessness, frustration, and rage are a fact of city life – and the ambivalent consequence of alienation – it keeps the disenfranchised down on their luck but it is also what stokes the flames of revolution. Ford’s London sinks deep into this ambivalence, with hopelessness and conflict simmering through every street she passes. Ford herself notes this potential with a series of symbols she draws on people and places throughout. The battle begins with a struggle between panoptic eyes and punk crosses she uses to imprint on enemies and exorcise friendly forces. Hearts and diamonds later appear, imbuing characters with further power. The final scene shows Ford clutching a Molotov cocktail while some friends move couch, as if to construct a protest barricade, and another stands over a computer monitor in triumph over the Spectacle. This is not the end, however, as it finishes with a long series of black pages, either apocalyptically declaring that ‘now, the end of the world,’ or more optimistically, ‘the future may be dark, but it is yet unwritten.’

The third map of anguish was fabricated in Spain. What prompted the map was Spain’s 2002 general strike, and the strike’s failure to account for the increasing feminization of work. Women from Madrid’s La Eskalera Karakola feminist social center were concerned that the unions behind the strike do not represent their “fragmented, informal, [and] invisible” labor (Precarias, “Adrift through the Circuits”). In response, they formed Precarias a la Deriva to invent new forms of militant activist research.

Precarias a la Deriva’s first innovation address the fragmented nature of work through the drift. Similar to the other two projects, they modeled their drift after the Situationist dérive. At the center of Precarias a la Deriva’s use of the drift is its emphasis on the ambient interaction between the physical landscape and subjective experience. They describe this as being “attentive to the billboard that assaults you, the bench which attracts, the building which suffocates, the people who come and go” (Precarias, “First Stutterings”). Their focus on experience helps reveal how care work intensifies the dialectical dilemma of work under capital – work allows some women to escape the invisible labor of the home, yet waged labor is not a form of liberation (Precarias, “A Very Careful Strike”).

The group’s second advancement acknowledges informality by making the picket line into a drifting picket survey. In place of markedly masculine bourgeois points of interest, such as the factory floor or the flânuer’s stroll through early Parisian malls, Precarias a la Deriva’s surveys began at sites of feminized labor – the workplaces of domestic work, telemarketing, code-workers (translators, teachers, graphic designers), food service, and health care – that led to additional sites (sex work, marketing, social work…) (“First Stutterings”). In their surveys, they asked women questions such as, “Are you striking? Why?,” “Under what conditions do you work?,” and “What kind of tools do you have to confront situations that seem unjust to you?…” (“Adrift”).

The group’s third development uses invisibility to create a new ecology of political tactics. One Precarias a la Deriva list includes six tactics: first, points of attack targeting the care-sex-attention spectrum of labor; second, slogans that both acknowledge but aspired to overthrow feminized labor; third, points of aggregation that rely on the diffuse openness of the city; fourth, local and international alliances built through trans-medial materials (videos, blogs, books); fifth, public utterances and visibility that coordinate discourses circulating outside formal channels; and six, common economic and infrastructural resources that expand the city’s penchant for germinating alternative forms of life (“Adrift”). When taken together, these six tactics takes difference as a basic condition, transforming differences from the cause of fracturing divisions into a source of strength.


All three projects share a common method and goals. In terms of method, they map the city through drifts that document the transient power of felt relation, though one makes conceptual maps, another constructs visual art collages, and the other uses ethnography. In terms of goals, they each work to “turn private emotions into a public resource for political action,” but in different ways.

Taken in their totality, we have the raw materials for rethinking Lynch’s environmental image. Gone is the dream of a unified image that nullified difference. The feminist of these three projects show differences do not needed to be passed over, and in fact, an environmental image may be stronger in its passage through difference.

There should be an expected difference between Lynch and feminists. Lynch sees images as a means to make cities easier to navigate. These feminists instead see images as the basis for a spectacular separation expressed in the anguish of urban life.

All three project seem to point in one direction: perhaps a feminist environmental images represent the city as a form of stormy weather. Consider how the city’s negative climate is felt in Chicago, its alienation produces an atmosphere of separation in London, and its confluence of forces are experienced in the fragmented, informal, and invisible work in Madrid.

In conclusion, perhaps the feminist image of the city can be summarized in a thesis: “The metropolis does not confront women like a subject, facing them, but like an environment that is hostile to them.”

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